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DISPLAYING POSTS TAGGED: illustrations (2)

John Abbot’s Lepidoptera

by Hayley
Publish date
8 March 2013
Comments (1)

The MV Library holds an important collection of 18th and 19th century scientific literature. Many of these books began as working tools for early museum curators studying the local fauna. Now, they form part of our rare book collection and are prized for their beauty and rarity.

The library's collection has an interesting history, forming from the amalgamation of two specialist collections from the National Museum of Victoria and Science Museum. Books have been purchased since the earliest days of the National Museum of Victoria, when the first director, Frederick McCoy, acquired important titles such as the entomological works of Maria Sybilla Merian.

While the library collection at MV is relatively small, it is also surprisingly unique. Library staff are currently working to identify titles unique to Australian libraries, a project which has exposed some real gems in the collection, such as John Abbot’s The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia (1797).

Tab V, ‘American Brimstone Butterfly’ Tab V, ‘American Brimstone Butterfly’ via the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Abbot left his native England in 1773 for the colony of Virginia in North America, in order to procure specimens and make drawings of the local insects. Following the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775, Abbot moved to Georgia, where he spent the rest of his life recording the local insects and birds.

Tab XLIX, ‘Corn Emperor Moth’ Tab XLIX, ‘Corn Emperor Moth’ via the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Although he was a prolific natural history artist and well regarded in his lifetime, Abbot is not as well remembered as some of his contemporaries, who included famous naturalists such as John James Audubon. While he is thought to have created four to five thousand watercolours, most of them were unpublished or uncredited during his lifetime.

The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia includes 104 hand-coloured plates by John Harris, after original artwork by John Abbot. It's an important early work to depict North American butterflies and moths, and has been appreciated by scientists and collectors alike for its accuracy as well as its beauty. The introduction was written by James Edward Smith, a founder of The Linnean Society of London.

While it is exciting to encounter rare material in our collection, it is also nice to be able to share it. Luckily, the work has been digitised and is now freely accessible through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, so have a browse online or download your own copy of this rare work!


Gilbert, P. & Hamilton, C., Entomology: A Guide to Information Sources, London & New York: Mansell, 1990.

Gilbert, P., John Abbot: Birds, Butterflies and Other Wonders, London: Merrell Holberton and Natural History Museum, 1998.

Job, Frank, “The Library of Museum Victoria” in Rasmussen, C. (ed.), A Museum for the People: A History of Museum Victoria and its Predecessors, 1854-2000, Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications, 2001.

Rogers-Price, Vivian & Griffin, William W., "John Abbot: Pioneer-Naturalist of Georgia," Magazine Antiques (October 1983): 768-75.

Artists and animals

by Leonie
Publish date
20 April 2011
Comments (0)

This post comes from Leonie Cash, a librarian at the Museum Victoria library.

Thanks to the network of arts libraries, ARLIS, a trio of RMIT art academics visited the MV Library’s rare books collection recently to view examples of eighteenth and nineteenth century scientific illustration. Facsimiles of Albertus Seba and Maria Merian’s work were also on display.

Facsimilies Facsimiles of famous works by Albertus Seba and Maria Merian.
Source: Museum Victoria

The three visitors are associated with RMIT’s School of Art and all are practising artists with a keen interest in natural history, particularly natural history illustration.

Artists studying rare books Greg Moncrieff, work experience student Max and Louise Weaver examine the exquisite illustrations in MV's rare books.
Source: Museum Victoria

Greg Moncrieff was very pleased with the diversity of material available from the old books on display.

While looking at Gould’s humming birds, Louise Weaver was fascinated by the methods of layering of paint that reproduce the beautiful colours of these small birds.

Peter Ellis, Associate Professor and Studio Coordinator of Painting at RMIT, has written that the “experience of travel has had a profound impression on my work” and his visit to Museum Victoria’s rare books, though a short distance, has left him wanting to return again soon.

Rare book with fish illustration Fish illustration from 19th century America.
Source: Museum Victoria

The MV Library is happy to host visiting scholars by appointment; please contact us via email.


X Marks the Spot exhibition, 2006

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.